18 Minutes That Changed America

The scene is southeast Texas, the grassy marshlands just outside Houston. Time has left few
indelible footprints upon this corner of the Lone Star State. But for a single monument
towering in the background, this could be April 1836. A battle is about to take place this
21st-century April day, and although this one will be a reenactment, it carries with it all
the passion of the original – the final battle of that long-ago bloody spring, the fight
that would finish what the Battle of the Alamo only had started: Texas’ independence from
Mexico. Today, as then, a host of canvas soldiers’ tents have sprung up like clusters of
white mushrooms in the tall grass. Mexican soldiers and Texians (as the Texas defenders
called themselves) are milling about their respective camps, dressed as they would have
been 167 years ago. “The reenactors keep every detail of this day as accurate as possible,”
says Russ Kuykendall, operations manager for the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic
Site, where the battle has been showcased annually since 1990. “Nothing is allowed into the
camps or battle that wouldn’t have been around then.” The several hundred reenactors are
mainly from groups such as the San Antonio Living History Association and the Crossroads of
Texas Living History Association. They converge on the historic battleground as The San
Jacinto Volunteers for this event only. More than 18,000 visitors come each year to watch
the battle that changed the nation, Kuykendall says. The seeds of the battle were planted
nearly two decades beforehand when, according to Kuykendall, the Mexican government granted
permission for Anglo settlers from the United States to colonize the remote state on the
Gulf of Mexico. By 1835, however, Mexico’s dictator, Antonio López de Santa Anna, had begun
to fear that Anglos in Texas would soon outnumber Hispanics. He attempted to stop future
immigration, while denying settlers the right to carry weapons needed for Indian defense.
Later that same year, a group of citizen-delegates gathered to declare independence from
Mexico; they drafted a constitution and began raising an army. Hoping to quash the de-facto
revolution, Santa Anna marched into Texas with 6,000 troops. You know the rest. The two
factions met at Mission San Antonio de Valero – known as the Alamo. When the 13-day siege
was over, the Alamo had fallen and all 189 Texas defenders – among them Davy Crockett and
Jim Bowie – had been killed. A few weeks later, Santa Anna ordered the deaths of more than
340 Texian soldiers captured at Goliad. Enraged by the Mexican dictator’s brutality, 900
Texians under the command of General Sam Houston prepared to attack, even though they, too,
were greatly outnumbered by Santa Anna’s troops. Fortunately, the last battle of the
revolution would not be a slaughter of Texas defenders. Although he was fully aware the
Texians were nearby (they had fought a brief skirmish the previous day), Santa Anna posted
no sentries that April 21. Late in the day, Houston’s troops fell upon the unsuspecting
Mexicans and a rout ensued. The actual battle lasted just 18 minutes; according to reports,
the Mexicans turned and ran without getting off a single shot. The Texians, however, were
intent upon avenging the atrocities of the Alamo and Goliad; by the battle’s end, more than
600 Mexicans lay dead and more than 700 had been taken prisoner. Only two Texians died
during the fight; seven more died days later from their wounds. The following day, Santa
Anna was captured and brought to General Houston. Reluctantly, he agreed to the terms of a
treaty requiring Mexican soldiers to leave the state. Thus, says Kuykendall, the Republic
of Texas was born. The reenactment begins with the Run-Away Scrape. Fleeing ahead of Santa
Anna’s army, settlers (played by 100 reenactors, though there were many more in 1836) hurry
from the battleground’s civilian camp in a mad dash for the Louisiana border and safety.
Then the battle commences, made amazingly real with modern-day pyrotechnics. The
reenactment is held every year on the Saturday closest to the actual anniversary of the
battle. One hundred years later, in 1936, the $1.5 million monument at the battleground was
begun. Built of reinforced concrete and fossilized shell stone, which gives the monument a
unique pockmarked appearance, the monument is considered the tallest stone-column memorial
in the world; it stretches to 570 feet – higher by 15 feet than the Washington Monument.
The final 34 feet is encompassed by the huge 220-ton Texas star, designed to be seen as a
star (showing five points) no matter what the viewing angle. Behind the monument’s massive
3,000-pound, 15½-foot-tall brass doors, you will find both a museum and an elevator (which
whisks visitors to an observation area 489 feet above ground level). There, you can watch a
six-minute video of the battle – and look far across the grassy 1,000-acre park to the
Houston ship channel. Near the monument, a magnificent reflecting pool glitters like 8½
acres of bright glass. The museum offers an interpretation of more than 400 years of Texas
history. Displays include dozens of early maps, mission padres’ embroidered clerical
clothing, rare books and portraits. However, the most interesting “exhibit” is a 35-minute
multi-image show, Texas Forever!! The Battle of San Jacinto, which is shown in its theater.
Forty-two projectors flash more than 3,000 slides on a giant screen, illustrating (to
excellent narration) the story of Texas. The show concludes with a 20-per-second frenzy of
slides – a near-movie of the battle. We enjoyed it so much, we went back to watch it a
second time. Also at the park is a 1,210-foot-long interpretive trail, part of which
encompasses a boardwalk that introduces visitors to flora and fauna of the upper Texas
coast. Here, too, is the battleship Texas. The only surviving dreadnought-class warship and
a veteran of both World Wars, it can be toured from stem to stern. It’s joined on the
Buffalo Bayou by the Seawolf Submarine Memorial, honoring the submersible lost at sea in
1944. The San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site is located 22 miles east of Houston
off State Highway 225 East. The monument and museum are open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
except on Christmas Eve and Day and Thanksgiving Day. Texas Forever!! is shown hourly from
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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